Let’s just be clear on what the Holy Spirit’s work looks like!
A number of years ago I learned many marvelous things during a time of convalescence. In my weakened state, about all the activity I could muster was to stare rather comatosely at the TV screen. So it was decided that we should get “cable” — and, oh, what a difference that has made! Instead of surfing through four or five channels and determining that nothing worth watching is on, I can now surf through fifty or more channels before determining that nothing worth watching is on! Just think of all the exercise my fingers are getting and all the aggravation I am causing to the rest of my family as I indulge in this male ritual! But it has not all been for naught, as I’ve now been exposed to two mainstays in the lineup of cable TV: The Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN) and the World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE)!
I’ve spared myself much vexation of spirit over the years by religiously avoiding the religious programming offered on TV. However, in my weakened state, I did familiarize myself with the offerings of TBN. It is quite a show! The glitzy sets, the glamorous people, the “powerful” personalities, the “spiritual” phenomena, and the exuberant audience is quite a contrast to the normal goings-on in our little church on Sunday morning. Even the tears can seemingly be choreographed to flow or subside on cue!
Then there’s professional wrestling! What can I say? I am a product of the South, and this amazing spectacle is somewhat indigenous to the region of my birth. So, for the underprivileged of you who were born elsewhere, let me describe to you what you’re missing. Gigantic, muscle-bound, steroid fed monsters of men, with colorful names and elaborate costumes, proceed to slam, throw, gouge and hammer each other into submission. There are the good-guys and bad-guys, each with a loyal following, who, week after week, keep the drama going. It’s a soap opera version of the epic struggle of Good vs. Evil, complete with full body contact! Yet the real excitement is not in the ring, but in the stands. The crowd — which runs the gamut from red-necked, good ‘ol boys to little old ladies — goes absolutely berserk, hissing and booing the bad guys, and cheering and screaming for the good guys. It’s all in good fun, of course, and no one is apparently too seriously injured, for the show always continues the following week. There doesn’t seem to be much of a connection between these two shows. Yet, one day it struck me that there was an amazing correlation. For the relationship between this TV version of Christianity (which, by the way, is the version being emulated in countless pulpits across our land every Sunday) and the real thing is basically the same as that between Professional wrestling and the real thing!
Have you ever been to a true, honest-to goodness wrestling match? Several years ago my son, Kevin, just happened to be the eighth-grade champion of his weight division in Davidson County, Tennessee (not that I’m proud or anything). To tell the truth, I’d never witnessed a true wrestling match until Kevin took up the sport. Then I learned the technical side of the sport: the holds, the moves, the reverses, the scoring, etc. It takes great agility, speed, coordination, strength and skill. Because you only wrestle against those of comparable size, it is a pure “sport”, quite unlike the sports of football or basketball, where genetic makeup plays such a big part. But, compared to professional wrestling, this is pretty tame stuff. There’s no flamboyant garb, outrageous monikers, or dramatic story-line. In fact, unless you were a wrestling purist, who truly loved the sport, or had your son involved in the contest, you’d probably find real wrestling pretty downright boring. This sport doesn’t draw the great, enthusiastic throngs who attend the professional variety of the sport. Yes, there was cheering — especially from a contestant’s parents, coach, and teammates — but nothing to compare with the exuberance and the excitement of a professional match. But it has one thing going for it that the professional version does not: It’s real!
Before any of you sic one of your pro wrestling buddies on me for questioning his sport, I’m not saying that these men aren’t big and strong. They could hoist and throw me through a wall in a moment. I’m not saying that one doesn’t have to be a tremendous athlete and in terrific shape to do the things they do. What I’m saying (and what I hope is blatantly obvious to all but the most simple among us) is this: It’s a show, it’s not real, it’s entertainment! The outcome is prearranged, the matches are staged, and the moves are choreographed. Victory proves absolutely nothing about the superior or inferior athleticism of the contestants involved! It’s great fun, it’s exciting to watch, but it’s hardly reality. Its escapism at its best (or worst).
In precisely the same way, the TV version of Christianity (and its many imitators) invoke God’s Name, speak of Jesus and His cross, and manifest all sorts of phenomena in the Name of the Holy Spirit. There’s just one small thing missing: It’s not real! One would think this observation would be as obvious as . .. well, the observation that professional wrestling isn’t real . .. except that American “Christianity” is buying it en masse. No, not necessarily the Paul and Jan Crouch version of it, but in the countless imitations it is spawning across our land. The very concept of worship is being transformed. No longer is it based upon the careful exegesis of God’s Word, but upon the production of an exciting spectacle attended by supposed displays of the miraculous. The thrust of such “services” is directed towards producing a highly charged atmosphere in which an excited crowd awaits the exhibition of and, perhaps, the participation in, various phenomena such as tongues, prophecies, slayings in the spirit, etc.
Around that year, the leaders of the “Pensacola Revival” (for you Canadians, the Americanized version of your “Toronto Blessing”) came to Memphis and held a large meeting here, presumably to “bring” the revival to our fair city. Most telling, I thought, was a comment made by an Assembly of God pastor from Kentucky as he was being interviewed by our local news media. When asked as to why he would come such a distance to attend this meeting, he replied that it was because of “the feeling” he got when he was around the revival. I do not question for a moment that he receives such a “feeling” when present at such services. Nor do I question for a moment that “something is going on”, or that there is a “spirit” present at such meetings. What I question is this: Is it real? Is it true? Is it God? Is it the Holy Spirit? If I were to judge what constitutes true wrestling based upon the same criteria of “feeling” and “excitement”, I would have to conclude that the professional variety is the genuine article. After all, it’s what draws the crowds, it’s where the action is, and it’s where you get that “feeling” of excitement that our culture seems to so desperately be craving.
I do not deny for a moment that there are many souls caught up in this religious excitement who are quite sincere and zealous. Neither do I question that they, in many cases, are simply hungering after some manifestation of spiritual life and vigor that they are not finding elsewhere. Yet, sincerity, when divorced from truth and reality, is easily us by Satan to perpetuate deception both in ourselves and others. Zeal, when based on falsehood, is a most dangerous quality, as a glimpse at pre-conversion Saul of Tarsus will show. Need I remind you that every cult is full of sincere, zealous adherents?
Neither do I desire to see true manifestations of the Spirit quenched or grieved. Let’s just be clear on what the Spirit’s work looks like! I simply refuse to equate this gaudy show of carnality with true, Spirit-filled worship! The giddiness, the silliness, and the levity that so often accompanies these exhibitions of the “spirit” are a far cry from the sobriety of mind, humility, and self-control that are the hallmarks of a genuine work of the Holy Spirit. And, when it comes to the miraculous, why fool around with the penny-ante stuff that goes on in these meetings? Let’s go for the big one! I’m talking about salvation, in all it’s splendor and glory, with all its attendant fruits such as a changed life, love for Christ, a hunger for holiness, humility of spirit, and a rejection of both the world and its ways — a rejection, if you think about it, of the very principles that underlie so much of this so-called “spirit filled” worship!
Neither do I contend, as I’m sometimes charged, for a worship devoid of “feeling”. If I understand the Bible at all, I must believe that my worship of God is to have an emotional aspect to it, for I’m to love and worship Him with all that I am. Yet, I’m not to worship in order to “feel” something. Neither am I to base my worship upon a “feeling”. Rather, my heart’s emotional devotion to the Triune God is to grow as my mind is enlightened concerning Who He is and what He’s done for me. My aim in conducting a worship service is not to excite the participant’s emotions, with the hope that he might learn something as a byproduct. Rather, I’m to aim for the heart through the head, striving to affect man’s heart as truth is brought to bear upon his mind.
True, genuine worship is based on truth and knowledge, and to those who love truth and hunger after knowledge, it will be anything but boring. It may not be the showy spectacle that others crave, but it will be real. Just as there are wrestling “purists”, who love the legitimate sport, and detest the sham that goes by the same name, may God make us to be “purists” concerning His truth, concerning His worship, and concerning the legitimate fruits flowing from His Spirit. And may we recognize and abhor the charade masquerading as the real thing! These words of twenty centuries ago are just as pertinent today as when penned: “Little children, keep yourselves from idols.”